’Tis the Season for Giving

by Michelle Werts

What does December bring to mind? For me, it’s a chill in the air — any day now would be nice, D.C. (this Midwest girl needs her snow) — baking, shopping and family, although not necessarily in that order. For many, December is also synonymous with Salvation Army Santas, Toys for Tots and other worthy charities. Magazines provide lists of nonprofits to support — thanks Outside magazine for naming us as one of 30 organizations and innovators who are “truly making a difference.” And we all spread goodwill toward our fellow men and women when we can, making December the busiest time of year for charitable giving.

But, are you, like me, a little unclear about what these donations mean come tax time? Well, my friends, I’ve decided to do some research to figure out exactly how yuletide charitable gifts can give back come April 15th.

Credit: Aaron Patterson/Flickr

Let’s start with the most basic information: a gift to American Forests this December can mean much more than just cleaner air, cleaner water, and a healthier planet — it may mean you pay less in taxes! How’s that now? When you give to a charity, like American Forests, you are potentially lowering your taxable income because you can subtract the combined total of your gifts from your adjusted gross income. And a lower taxable income may mean you pay lower taxes! But there are key tips to remember and to take advantage of to make this happen:

  • The more the merrier: Remember those old clothes and furniture you donated earlier this year? That monthly donation you sent to your favorite charity? That one-time donation to your local firemen? You want to remember them all, dig out the receipts and thank you letters, and add the totals. The higher the total of your charitable gifts, the better chance you have of lowering your taxable income.
  • Check, please: Want to count that $20 you dropped in Santa’s bucket for your taxes? Easier said than done because the IRS needs proof of your donation — and Santa sees a lot of faces during December. Therefore, always get a receipt for that donation or better yet write a check or use your credit card on a secure website or via telephone. The IRS needs documentation of the name of the organization you donated to, the date you made the donation and the amount you donated.
  • Happy New Year: Happy that is if you remembered to make your donations prior to December 31st. Remember that merely dating the check December 31st isn’t enough — your envelope has to be postmarked on the last day of the year to qualify for your 2011 taxes!
  • The sky’s the limit … up to 50 percent: You can only deduct 50 percent of your income in one year. So, if you made $40,000 this year, the maximum you can deduct in charitable gifts is $20,000. But, unlike income which has to be counted in the year it’s earned, any unclaimed generosity from one year can be rolled to the next.

From here, things get a bit more complicated and specific, such as having to itemize your deductions (meaning use the Schedule A form), the fact that most charitable gifts need to be given to a 501 (c)(3) organization to count, etc., so let’s stop why we’re ahead and before my head begins to hurt too much. I hope this information was as useful for you as it was for me. Now, go out, shop green and give the gift of trees!

Disclaimer: I am not now nor will I ever be a tax professional. While I have done my best to provide you with the basics, make sure to consult with a tax professional for advice on your specific tax situation.


Success Is Sweet for Rural Communities

by Amanda Tai

Credit: barry.pousman/flickr

I love Vermont and maple syrup. None of that fake sugary “pancake syrup” for me. I grew up in New England, where I was surrounded by a culture that embraced small farmers and local businesses like maple syrup producers. Thanks to a new grant program from the USDA, my Sunday brunches will now be a whole lot greener. The Rural Energy for America Program (or REAP), which is administered by USDA Rural Development, is awarding grants to six maple syrup producers to reduce their energy use. Five of the producers are located in the state of Vermont.

Did you know that maple tree sap is almost completely water? Only about two percent of it is sugar. That means it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup! The delicious end product is certainly worth the effort, but it’s important to remember that there’s a lot of energy that goes into removing all that water.

One of the main methods producers can adopt to become more energy efficient is reverse osmosis. Traditionally, maple syrup is made by boiling sap over an open fire to reduce the liquid by ninety-eight percent. Reverse osmosis, on the other hand, removes about half of the liquid from the sap by running it through a semi-permeable membrane before it is boiled down into syrup. That means shorter boiling time and less energy needed afterwards to boil the sap. Not only will this make the production process more environmentally friendly, it will save producers time and money. And as all small businesses in this economy can attest, every penny counts.

But it doesn’t stop there. The USDA has other programs to support the sugar industry. In addition to REAP, the USDA also helps maple syrup producers through programs like EQIP (the Environmental Quality Incentives Program). Two years ago, the Maple Guys in New Hampshire were awarded a $10,000 Conservation Innovation Grant, a component of EQIP. With the help of the grant, they were able install a wood-fired evaporator for their business, the first of its kind in the state. This machine uses renewable energy because it actually combusts the resultant gas from the burning wood to provide even more energy, rather than letting the gas escape. The Maple Guys hope they can serve as an example for the rest of the industry in making the switch to more sustainable and domestic fuel sources. Success never tasted so good!


O Christmas Tree!

by Scott Steen, CEO

During the holidays, trees in every community do double duty as harbingers of the season. In the town where I live, many street trees are ablaze with lights, transforming the shopping district into a cheerful and magical destination.

The U.S. National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C., December 2010. Credit: National Park Service

Here in Washington, our headquarters is only a few blocks from the National Christmas Tree, which President Obama and his family lit just last week. The tree, which is on the Ellipse just south of the White House, is visited by thousands of people from all over the country every year. We at American Forests have a special relationship with the tree, as it is a part of our history.

The first “Community Christmas Tree” was lit by President Calvin Coolidge on the Ellipse in 1923, but the president was concerned about the number of live trees that were being cut from forests for holiday decorations — this was, of course, before the advent of the Christmas tree farm. So, in 1924, the American Forestry Association (our name prior to 1990) donated the first live National Christmas Tree to President Coolidge and the American people and planted it on the Ellipse. Since then, the National Christmas Tree has played an important role in our nation’s celebration of the holiday season.

The tree was originally a balsam fir, but several tree species have had the honor since then, as over the years the trees have become damaged by weather and other factors. These include a Norway spruce, blue spruce, Fraser fir, red cedar, oriental spruce and Colorado blue spruce. The current National Christmas Tree is a 26.5-foot Colorado blue spruce that was planted last March after a severe storm felled the previous Colorado blue spruce that had served as the National Christmas Tree since 1978.

The National Park Service suggested replacing the live national tree with an artificial one in 1946, but that idea received significant opposition. From 1954 to 1972, the Park Service switched to a cut National Christmas Tree. Fortunately, a spontaneous, grassroots letter-writing campaign by American citizens began pressing for a live tree in 1965 and intensified by 1969. After a much larger letter-writing campaign in 1972, the National Park Service finally bowed to public pressure and planted a live tree again.

If you celebrate Christmas, chances are you have a tree of your own. While typically our work at American Forests involves protecting and restoring forests, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Christmas tree farms and real Christmas trees, which can have a number of environmental benefits in their own right. According to the National Christmas Tree Association:

  • There are approximately 25-30 million real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. every year.
  • There are close to 350 million real Christmas trees currently growing on Christmas tree farms, all planted by farmers, in the U.S. alone. These trees are planted and grown as a crop for the explicit reason of providing Christmas trees.
  • There are more than 4,000 local Christmas tree recycling programs throughout the United States.
  • For every real Christmas tree harvested, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring.
  • There are about 350,000 acres in production for growing Christmas trees in the U.S., much of which is preserving green space.

No matter what holidays you may be celebrating during the weeks ahead, may your days be merry and bright. Happy holidays from all of us at American Forests!


Between a Rock and a Rising Ocean

by Katrina Marland

Credit: Flickr/uscgpress

On an island in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough is a town called Kivalina. It’s a small community of just over 400 people, many of them Inupiats. Despite the rural location and a population that keeps mostly to itself, Kivalina is a town that we should all be paying attention to.

The barrier island on which the town sits is disappearing. As I mentioned in my post about the changes in the Arctic tundra, the climate is warming more rapidly in the far north than it is for the rest of the world. Warmer temperatures have meant the ice that usually protects the island during the storm season isn’t freezing in time, and more intense storms are eroding Kivalina’s eight-mile barrier island, all while the sea level is rising. The land is literally vanishing.

In 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers found that the community only has between 10 and 15 years before the island becomes uninhabitable, and that’s only if there was no further erosion. The report also found that it would cost $95-$125 million to relocate the town, and as time would come to tell, no one was willing to foot the bill.

But the town fought back. In 2008, the town sued a number of energy companies — including ExxonMobil, BP America and Chevron Corporation — for $400 million in damages because of their contributions to the climate changes that would doom their little town. The U.S. District Court dismissed the case in 2009, stating that a politically charged topic like climate change could only be addressed by the Obama administration.

I admit, even I would have been skeptical of a good outcome. Not because I doubt that those companies’ actions have contributed to global warming, but because I know that they aren’t singlehandedly responsible for it. For all that we complain (often with good reason) about companies that deal in oil and coal, the truth of the matter is that they only exist because we all use them. In fact, this was part of the defense’s argument (watch the video here).

This year, Kivalina is reviving its lawsuit. If successful, it will set a precedent for the thousands of other coastal communities that will find themselves in danger over the next few decades because of climate change. It will be interesting to see if the legal system determines that corporations are at fault — or we are. Either way, it can be only a hollow verdict for the centuries-old town of Kivalina when, in just a decade, it will have slipped under the sea.


Don’t Take the Trees!

by Michelle Werts

Yesterday, Katrina talked about working Christmas tree farms, where the farmers work hard to make sure that they are planting as many trees as are being removed from their farm, but what happens when trees are removed in cities and towns to be replaced by new apartments, shops and other developments? That’s the very dilemma facing James Island in South Carolina.

James Island County Park near Charleston, South Carolina. Credit: Reellady/Flickr

A developer has plans to cut down 60 grand trees in the area to make way for adult retirement apartments. What is a grand tree according to Charleston? It’s a tree with a trunk at breast height of 24 inches or more, excluding pine trees. The 60 trees at the heart of this discussion are a mix of live oaks, laurel oaks, magnolias and others. Trees that help purify the city’s air, filter its water and cool the individuals, animals and even machines that lounge beneath them. Not surprisingly, some residents are disheartened by the plans, but the matter is complicated, as the development is proposed as a “gathering place” project.

According to Charleston zoning and land-use information, a gathering place is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a mix of buildings that provides walking and biking opportunities and includes open spaces for community use, such as parks. Basically, it’s the type of development that is generally encouraged by conservation groups, who recognize that developments are important to communities and the economy, but also want to preserve as many trees, parks and natural areas as possible. The James Island project has also designated “tree save areas” (don’t ask me what exactly that means, as I’m not sure) to protect the remaining 47 trees on the property. Trees versus development versus active communities. Which interest should win?

Before you begin think that conflicting interests when it comes to trees in urban environments is unique to South Carolina, think again. Earlier this year, Baltimore found itself in an environmental peccadillo when the Baltimore Grand Prix (BGP) came to town. Approximately 30 trees were removed from the area surrounding the race route to make way for grandstands and other race needs despite an attempt by a local resident for an injunction against the removal. What made this removal okay with the Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, Downtown Partnership and Waterfront Partnership? The BDG plans to replace many of the trees that will be removed and add more than 100 new ones, as part of its “Green Prix” initiative. But will they?

In a new twist to a story that was originally thought wrapped back in August, the Grand Prix organizers are behind on their bills. Big time. To the tune of at least $1.5 million, leaving the question of whether there will even be funds to plant the new trees as promised. So, 30-plus mature trees were removed, lots of pollution entered the air from some powerful automobiles flying around the city and there may not be any new trees. Big environmental fail.

Why?

  • Urban trees remove approximately 800,000 tons of pollution from the air every year.
  • Urban trees slow flooding and help filter water; they reduce storm water runoff by approximately two percent.
  • Well-placed trees around a residence or business reduce energy needs by 20-50 percent.

That’s why. Urban forests don’t just make our cityscapes beautiful; they make our cities, and us, healthier. That’s why every time a tree might be cut down in a city, everyone should take a step back and figure out the true costs of such a decision.


Deck the Halls

by Katrina Marland

Credit: Flickr/Joe Buckingham

I’m really looking forward to this weekend. Every year on the first weekend of December, the Christmas tree goes up at my house. Being a holiday nut, I love kicking off the season by picking out and decorating the perfect tree. With this exciting event on the horizon, I thought it a good time to revisit that “evergreen” environmental debate: real trees or artificial? Despite what some may think, the answer is not as simple as choosing a fake tree so that a real one won’t be cut down. Not even close.

Real trees are grown and harvested domestically, often locally, while artificial trees, like most goods that are manufactured half a world away (85 percent of fake trees in the U.S. are made in China), are brought in by carbon-emitting planes, trains, and automobiles. Buying from a local tree farm also supports small business and the local economy, instead of large corporations and economies overseas.

Are artificial trees less of a fire hazard? Nope, that’s just a myth. Most materials used in artificial trees aren’t just flammable, they contain enough chemicals (including lead and PVC) to create a more toxic smoke when burned. While a real tree is flammable, if you care for it properly it won’t present much more of a fire hazard than the rest of your living room. And if you’re worried about fire, buy LED lights for your tree since they don’t heat up as much, and plug them into a surge protector instead of directly into the socket.

When it comes to disposal, there’s a clear winner. Whether a real tree lands in a mulch pile, compost heap or landfill, the waste is 100 percent biodegradable. Most artificial trees are made from metal and plastic, which means your one-time tannenbaum will be decorating a landfill for decades to come.

What about the environmental impact of cutting down a tree? Remember, tree farms are farms, not forests, and their trees are grown as crops. As they grow, they support the local ecosystem, providing the same natural benefits. Because they are cut down at a certain age — between 4 and 15 years, depending on the species and the desired size — the farmers often plant rotating crops, which means that for every tree brought home to deck the halls, another is already being grown back on the farm and more are planted the following spring. Because the farmers rely on a healthy environment to produce their product, they have to be careful not to overuse or mistreat the land, and to keep the local ecosystem healthy and balanced.

So there you have it. If the wonderful smell and the fun of going out to pick your own tree each year aren’t enough to convince you, real trees are also the clear eco-friendly option. And no, a real tree doesn’t mean you have to wait; care for the tree correctly and it should last the full month, if not longer. Now get decorating!

PS – Tonight they light the National Christmas Tree, so don’t forget to stop by if you’re in the D.C. area, or to tune in live on TV or online at www.thenationaltree.org.


Climate Change Is in the Air

by Amanda Tai

Credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

Up until now, I’ve only talked about environmental policy within the U.S. But there’s a lot happening at the international level as well. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been working on climate change issues since 1995.

Under the UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol, industrialized countries have committed to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the agreement, these countries are also required to submit an annual report of their emissions.

So far, 191 nations have signed and ratified the protocol. The U.S. is the only country to have signed the protocol, but not ratify it. Why is this distinction important? Signing is a symbolic gesture of support, while ratifying signifies a nation’s formal agreement to cap emissions. This has put the U.S. in a controversial position in the climate change conversation. But, as President Obama recently stated during a press conference, the U.S. has shown support for addressing climate change:

We all have a responsibility to find ways to reduce our carbon emissions [but] advanced economies can’t do this alone … so, ultimately, what we want is a mechanism whereby all countries are making an effort. And it’s going to be a tough slog, particularly at a time when … a lot of economies are still struggling. But I think it’s actually one that, over the long term, can be beneficial.

But the U.S. makes up just a fraction of the UNFCCC. This year’s COP17 conference (that’s the 17th meeting session of the Conference of the Parties) has representatives from 194 countries! That’s one from every single UN member. A COP conference is held every year to discuss international climate change policy and develop strategies for the upcoming year.

This year’s meeting is taking place in Durban, South Africa, which draws attention to the climate change issues that many African countries and other developing nations are facing. Over the past few years, greenhouse gas emission levels have been heading in the right direction, but we’ve still got a ways to go. That’s why South Africa’s Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, is urging industrialized and developed countries to agree to a second term of the Kyoto Protocol — first term ends in 2012. COP17  attendees will discuss prospects of a second term, and if not, what the next steps should be.

This meeting will also focus on agreements made during last year’s meeting in Cancun to transfer funds from richer countries to poorer countries. Funding remains a huge barrier for many developing countries. They lack the funding needed to build infrastructure and capacity to work on climate change strategies. To help prioritize funding efforts, the UNFCCC has developed the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), a database of climate change projects in developing countries. These projects help educate children about climate change, improve watershed management, better prepare communities for natural disasters and incorporate clean technology for farmers.

How will 194 countries come to an agreement on international climate change policy? It will be interesting to see, since I have a hard time just getting friends to agree on a restaurant for dinner! For the latest on the conference, be sure to follow COP17 online at the UNFCCC website and the host country’s website. You can also follow #COP17 on Twitter.


A Grizzly Win

by Michelle Werts

Yellowstone National Park has a long, storied history — especially when it comes to its wildlife.

Who can forget the controversial reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone in the mid-90s?

Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright with some wild friends in 1922. Credit: George A. Grant/National Park Service

Then, there are the ubiquitous snapshots of tourists and park employees mingling with bears from the early 1900s.

And, wouldn’t you know, those bears are still making headlines today — beyond stealing pic-a-nic baskets, that is. Last week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling to reinstate grizzly bears to the endangered species list. What was the lynchpin of this victory? Forests, whitebark pine forests.

The U.S. first recognized the grizzlies’ threatened status in 1967, and in 1975, the species was granted protection under the Endangered Species Act. For the next 30-plus years, grizzlies found themselves protected from hunters’ crosshairs, and their population steadily increased. But an increase in population that corresponded with loss of habitat meant a resurgence of interaction with human visitors, and earlier this year, some of those interactions turned deadly.

In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) attempted to remove the grizzly from the endangered species list, indicating that the rejuvenated, steady population meant the bears were no longer at risk. The 9th Circuit Court disagreed. While the grizzlies may be recovering nicely, one of their primary food sources, whitebark pine, is now endangered.

Credit: Chris, MyBullDog/Flickr

This summer, the USFWS declared that whitebark pine’s inclusion on the endangered species list was “warranted,” as the entire species could be extinct in as little as two to three decades.

What’s the big deal about whitebark pine? It just happens to be the keystone species of the high-elevation forests of the Mountain West — and it’s dying at rapid rates from a disease called blister rust and a lot of pesky mountain pine beetles. You know those trees high on the mountaintop that form the treeline or the barrier between forests and the snowtops? If you’re in the West, those are likely to be whitebark pine. And those forests that they anchor help control and filter the water of the Colorado River basin — water that many of the southwestern states and agricultural fields of California rely on.

Grizzlies rely on the pine trees, too. Whitebark pine seeds are high-fat, high-energy morsels. Perfect for bears preparing for long, winter naps. If the whitebark goes, so does the grizzly’s primary autumnal meal. Not to mention the fact that when they’re feeding on trees high in the mountains, they’re not feeding near human populations, keeping both us and them safe. And this is why the 9th Circuit Court doesn’t think the grizzly bear is out of the woods. To save the bears, we have to save the trees.

And here at American Forests, we’re planning on doing everything we can to save the whitebark pine and its forests. Many of our Global ReLeaf projects are focused on reforesting devastated areas of whitebark pine, and as our CEO, Scott Steen, mentioned in the Autumn 2011 issue of American Forests, we’ll be launching a major campaign next year centered around our endangered Western forests. So stay tuned for more on this issue, as the grizzlies are just the tip of the iceberg.


Gifts of Green

by Katrina Marland

Credit: Flickr/Mulad

So it’s the week after Thanksgiving. The parade was great, the turkey was delicious and the football was fun. Now, it’s time to get down to business: holiday shopping. If you’re like me, you’ve already got a list a mile long that you’ve been determinedly ignoring for the last couple weeks because hey, it wasn’t even Thanksgiving yet. Now, there are no excuses left.

Holiday shopping is usually tough enough — so we’re looking to make it a little easier for you this year. Since today is Cyber Monday (Black Friday’s more convenient cousin), and you’re probably already looking for some spectacular deals online, check out these retailers that will not only give you great deals on gifts, but also give a little back to the environment.

Origins: These skincare products are made from all-natural, organic ingredients and are created using windpower and other forms of renewable energy. Plus, the company’s Plant-A-Tree initiative with us has planted more than 100,000 trees worldwide.

Crushcrush Couture: For every purchase from this online jewelry boutique, 25 percent of the price is donated to one of four charities. Choose American Forests upon checkout, and 25 percent of your purchase will be used to plant trees.

Paul Mitchell: This acclaimed hair product line has planted enough trees over the past five years to offset the emissions generated in the production and distribution of the Tea Tree brand, so this gift is really green all around.

Parducci Wine Cellars: The nation’s first carbon neutral winery uses local produce, practices sustainable farming, runs on 100 percent renewable energy and packages each bottle in eco-friendly materials. Give a bottle as a gift, or serve it at your own holiday festivities.

Uncommongoods: This website offers a wide variety of gifts, including books, games, jewelry and kitchenware. Upon checkout, you can opt to donate $1 to American Forests. You can also check out their line of nature-inspired products.

Reveal: These handbags are all made from recycled material or renewable resources, including bamboo, recycled fabric and vegan leather. On top of that, they plant a tree for every product they sell.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s us! Give a membership to American Forests as a gift this holiday season, and your friend or family member will enjoy exclusive online content, a year’s subscription to American Forests magazine and the knowledge that their gift is helping to restore forests around the world.


Happy Thanksgiving!

by Katrina Marland & Michelle Werts

"The First Thanksgiving," painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Did you know that Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until 1863? While the pilgrims celebrated the “first” Thanksgiving way back in 1623, it took almost 250 years for it to become an annual, national tradition. So, remember to thank Honest Abe today for officially recognizing this day of thanks every fourth Thursday in November.

And thank you all for being a part of our community here at American Forests. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. For all of you Black Friday shoppers, don’t forget to take your reusable bags along tomorrow!